Published in the Overland Journal, 30th May, 2013.
I learn more about privilege from what I get wrong about misogyny than from what I get right about racism –Teju Cole
After reading Mia Freedman’s piece about Delta Goodrem’s ‘blackface incident’ (not sure what else to call it) a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help but find myself agreeing. ‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘we are getting over outraged over the symbols of bigotry, and in doing so diverting our attention away from the real fights we need to have. And really, how offensive could that photo be?’
I’m glad I didn’t express my views at the time. As I watched the debate go on, I started to see that as a white man, I had not realised the impact of blackface. I did not know enough of its history and how offensive it truly was.
And then it clicked. The people trying to downplay the situation were the same sorts of people I would get angry at (as a queer man) when they tried to downplay Julia Gillard calling Christopher Pyne a ‘mincing poodle’ because ‘we know she’s not homophobic’. They’re the same ones who tell me to calm down if I get annoyed when I’m called ‘princess’ – because it’s ‘just a joke’.
In doing so, I learned a lot more about privilege, and more from what I got wrong about racism than from what I get right about queerphobia.
Freedman got herself into some hot water again yesterday when she tweeted in support of Eddie McGuire:
Eddie has an outstanding reputation for supporting equality and indigenous AFL players. His apology is sincere.
This time around I’m struggling to see the outrage. What McGuire said was clearly racist and he deserved to be torn a new one for it, but I think it is fair enough to say ‘he’s learnt his lesson, let’s be done with it’.
After all, hasn’t McGuire now learned about privilege from what he got wrong about racism?
In reaction to Freedman’s first piece, Sunili Govinnage argued that ‘Freedman didn’t encourage a conversation Australia very desperately needs to have. She ended it.’ Govinnage continued, saying that it ‘would be a good start if, for once, we can have a discussion about racism that doesn’t finish with a white-Australian proclaiming that we don’t need to have one.’
I couldn’t agree more. We need to have a bigger debate about privilege and bigotry in Australia. But for me, an important part of this would be how we can encourage people to learn from their mistakes about bigotry, and become part of a movement that challenges it. But I don’t think this is the debate we’re having.
The only way I can really describe much of our debate about bigotry at the moment is ‘outrage’: a thirteen-year-old girl sparks national outrage after calling Adam Goodes an ape. Stephanie Rice was hammered when she tweeted ‘Suck on that faggots’ after the Australian rugby union team beat the South Africans a while ago. Online sensation Destroy the Joint regularly takes to Twitter to publicly shame those who make sexist comments on their feed.
We are outraged at bigotry and we are willing to show it.
I’m not trying to play the ‘poor white boy’ here who believes that queers, women and blacks have now taken all the power and it’s white men who are now oppressed: that’s clearly not the case! But I don’t think this world of outrage is how we build a strong movement against bigotry – or help people ‘learn from their mistakes’ about misogyny, racism or queerphobia.
When I think about identity politics, or the collective fight against bigotry, I cannot help but think of it in a structural way. Our societies are built for white, straight, wealthy men, and we are all sucked into this hierarchy. This means that while individual instances of queerphobia, racism, and misogyny are clearly bad, they are part of a broader structural problem in society, which prompts the question – how do we challenge bigotry on a day-to-day basis as well as on a societal level?
I think the solution is to engage in a collective fight against bigotry, while also being willing to (respectfully) challenge it daily, and as part of a collective movement. And herein lies my problem. In this world of outrage, we’ve decided to focus on that second element, and in an aggressive way. Challenging bigotry has shifted from ‘Hey, that’s racist, you need to think about that’ to ‘You’re a racist fuck, the scum of the earth and because of [racist statement] you are now dead to me’. Delta Goodrem and Mia Freedman’s feeds were both full of it, and McGuire received a lot of it too.
And I understand why! Bigotry is awful, but I just don’t think this approach works. Instead of engaging with the structures and effectively challenging large-scale bigotry, we are creating a world in which those who say the wrong thing at the wrong time get eviscerated for it, and then completely locked out. In the meantime, the real structural bigotry often gets ignored.
While giving it to Alan Jones (rightfully) for his comments against Julia Gillard late last year, campaigns on issues such as access to abortion and freedom from violence struggle to get traction. Yet, in all of this debate around racism, the report from last Friday that showed that increasing numbers of Indigenous people are being both imprisoned and dying in custody seems to have been largely ignored.
Instead of doing the groundwork of building a collective, we are spending our time identifying those we think aren’t part of the collective and shaming them for it. If the targets were Tony Abbott, Jim Wallace and the like, I probably wouldn’t have a problem with it. But it’s not – it’s happening both to those who are building the bigoted structures, as well as those who are caught up in them.
We need to be able to have these debates about what constitutes misogyny, racism and queerphobia. At the same time, we need to question whether the debate we are having now is really that effective. When I think about this, I want us all to be able to ask that question, just like Teju Cole: ‘how can we all learn from our mistakes about bigotry?’
The world of outrage fails to do this.